With the Founding Fathers as Our Press Gang
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 12:25:18 PM EST
This post seems as relevant today as it was when I first posted on May 6, 2008. -- FC

Jill Lepore has a wise and erudite article in The New Yorker about four recent books about the Founding Fathers and their approach to religion and government.  All four books debunk Christian nationalism, and Lepore takes a whack at a little historical revisionism from Tim LaHaye along the way herself.  But most importantly, Lepore has a useful and illuminating take on the tricks history plays on us, as various of us attempt to press characters from history to score contemporary points.

Whether the mail should be sorted on Sundays, whether "In God We Trust" belongs on our coins, whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include "under God," whether our children should pray at school, whether we can have crèches on town commons at Christmas, everyone wants to know: What would the Founders do?

It's a question Thomas Jefferson found ridiculous. In 1816, when he was seventy-three and many of his revolutionary generation had already died, he offered this answer:

"This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. . . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
The Founders believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed was to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. Jefferson put it this way:
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."

The four books achieve a kind of consensus in four related lines of argument. First, the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular one. Second, by the standards of Evangelicals of both their day and ours, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were not Christians; they wrestled, often profoundly, with religious questions, but, as Church points out, "they all doubted the divinity of Christ." Third, the disestablishment of religion is itself responsible for Americans' unusual religiosity, which (these writers all believe) is something to celebrate. Fourth, notwithstanding the Founders' own remarkable secularism, the liberation of religion from government as much as the reverse was their aim. "The separation of church and state has greatly benefited religion, as Madison and Jefferson predicted that it would," Wills writes. Nussbaum argues that because "the separation of church and state is, fundamentally, about equality, about the idea that no religion will be set up as the religion of our nation," in the end "separation is also about protecting religion." Waldman writes, "Madison, I suspect, would . . . be delighted by surveys showing that, compared with most developed nations, Americans believe in God more, pray more, and attend worship services more frequently."

Because this debate is an argument about how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, people who enter it begin their investigation with the Founders; quite often, they end it there, too. Somewhere along the way, they almost always fall to wondering what James Madison would make of the latest Gallup polls or whether Benjamin Franklin would get along with Christopher Hitchens. That's how this debate works; that's the pack of tricks this history plays on the past. The problem is that constitutional jurisprudence, however essential it is to the rule of law, will always tend to produce a history in which the entire eighteenth century is reduced to the intellectual lives of a handful of men. And, because our tradition of constitutional jurisprudence is so important, that history can be all the history most Americans get. Needless to say, it's a history that leaves out a lot--not least, every other American who ever spread, advanced, or challenged the idea of religious liberty: people like printers turning out newspapers, mothers rearing children, pastors preaching to small towns, and, even, now obscure novelists. Maybe it's time for another pack of tricks.




Display:
are an ongoing important element of the struggle with the Religious Right. It is an area where most of us can use some improvement.  This article contains some important lessons.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed May 07, 2008 at 02:42:59 PM EST
especially when you consider how difficult coming to an understanding of historical events can be - and that we never will really know "the whole story".  It's been encouraging that historians have returned to source documents for their evidence in the past few decades, and also consulted with archaeologists (who find physical evidence - either supporting, disproving, or illuminating other aspects of the time) and other specialists to try to comprehend what actually happened.

Understanding the thinking of the people of the time... that can be even more difficult (in archaeology, trying to understand ideology from physical evidence is problematic), although their prolific writing helps a lot.  I'm sure that there are nuances scholars have missed and which we never will know.

That being said, I also think that we can come to some knowledge of history (and the thinking of the people in question) - and the work of the people you've referred to is part of that struggle.


by ArchaeoBob on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 06:33:38 PM EST
Parent

No matter how hard scholars try, we can never go back and know exactly what the Founders' writings meant to them and to their readership at the time. As a conductor friend of mine observed in a lecture on "period instrument" performances, we can put a lot of effort into recreating instrument construction, vocal technique, performance style, etc., but what we can never do is give our audience 18th century ears.

In the same way, we who live post-Freud and Marx and Keynes (to name just three seminal writers whose work profoundly influences modern thinking, no matter whether you agree or disagree with them) simply cannot turn off the messages and assumptions of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. If Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison were writing today, I am confident that they would use a whole different vocabulary to express their ideas. I appreciate the careful work that scholars are doing, but we have to remember that everything is interpretation filtered through modern-day understanding.

by MLouise on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 07:16:49 PM EST
Parent
Having the understanding and "ears" of the hearers of the time is one of those nuances.  

We will never be able to really grasp that, but at the same time I do believe we can have some understanding of history - just not the whole picture.

Most people of this age also don't grasp what life was really like during that period... except maybe in some sort of glorified "movie" sense (from watching movies and TV) - which is usually more wrong than right anyway.  That understanding is another point where we (the people today) can never get the whole picture... but I'd quickly argue that we can get part of it (through hard work and careful scholarship).  Scholars have to have some level of that understanding - and when we're talking about people like Lahaye, they don't even try (because it's not "scriptural" - doesn't fit with the myopic and error-filled idea of Christianity and the Bible anyway).

Since we don't "know it all" and can't, we should also be careful...


by ArchaeoBob on Sun Feb 17, 2013 at 12:56:01 PM EST
Parent






WWW Talk To Action


Trump Meets Man Who Inspired 2011 Terror Attack Deadlier Than Orlando Shooting
"It appears that the shooter was inspired by various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet" -- President Barack Obama, June 13, 2016,......
By Bruce Wilson (1 comment)
Terrorism as a "Marketing Method"
On the same day in 2011 during which he single-handedly blew up and shot to death 77 Norwegian citizens (mostly teenagers) and injured an......
By Bruce Wilson (0 comments)
Let's Can the Name Calling about Islam
President Obama rose to the occasion in the wake of the horror in Orlando. The president made clear in a speech on June 14th......
By Frank Cocozzelli (3 comments)
50 Shades of Patriarchal Grey
In what must be one of the worst public relations disasters in university history, wealthy donors to Baylor University recently took out a full......
By wilkyjr (4 comments)
Pious Proclamation Panned: Iowa's Governor Goes Around The Bend With Bible-Touting Document
Some elected officials have a bad habit of releasing official proclamations lauding the Bible, Christianity or religion generally.We at Americans United find these proclamations......
By Rob Boston (1 comment)
Unreasonable Argument: Sometimes What Everyone Knows Just Isn't So
Over the weekend, a group of atheists, humanists, agnostics and others held a "Reason Rally" in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.Thousands......
By Rob Boston (4 comments)
Above The Law?: Ala. Chief Jurist Demands No Accountability
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is in legal hot water again and has no one to blame but himself - but, as usual, he......
By Rob Boston (11 comments)
Thomas More Was No Patron Of Religious Freedom
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is preparing to kick off its annual Fortnight for Freedom. This year the two weeks of......
By Frank Cocozzelli (3 comments)
Falling Starr
Reports from around the nation are reporting Ken Starr, President of Baylor University, has been fired as head of the Baptist school.  Other stories......
By wilkyjr (7 comments)
Bluegrass Bonanza: Ky. Theocrat Loses Grip On Statehouse Seat
Political news of late has been dominated by three people - Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They've certainly provided good copy, but......
By Rob Boston (3 comments)
Political Piety Panned: We Don't Need A 'God's Party'
Every few years, a political pundit comes along and proclaims that the Religious Right is dead or on the verge of dying. I started......
By Rob Boston (7 comments)
Trump Campaign Tied To 2nd White Nationalist Party Leader
Even as Donald Trump seeks to tack to the center, and leave behind his earlier, wildly controversial statements on Hispanics and Muslims, mounting evidence......
By Bruce Wilson (4 comments)
Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party has Consequences
Those of us who write about the Religious Right and related matters often find ourselves wishing that we were wrong. Back in 2011 we......
By Frederick Clarkson (9 comments)
No Moore, Please: Ala. Chief Justice May Be Removed From The Bench
Word broke late Friday night that Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, may be on the verge of losing his job......
By Rob Boston (4 comments)
Road To Nowhere?: Ky. Officials Ramp Up Support For `Ark Park'
Officials in Kentucky have apparently decided that they're willing to endure a large amount of embarrassment if it will bring some mediocre jobs to......
By Rob Boston (6 comments)

Alternate economy medical treatment
Dogemperor wrote several times about the alternate economy structure that dominionists have built.  Well, it's actually made the news.  Pretty good article, although it doesn't get into how bad people could be (have been)......
ArchaeoBob (1 comment)
Evidence violence is more common than believed
Think I've been making things up about experiencing Christian Terrorism or exaggerating, or that it was an isolated incident?  I suggest you read this article (linked below in body), which is about our great......
ArchaeoBob (6 comments)
Central Florida Sheriff Preached Sermon in Uniform
If anyone has been following the craziness in Polk County Florida, they know that some really strange and troubling things have happened here.  We've had multiple separation of church and state lawsuits going at......
ArchaeoBob (3 comments)
Demon Mammon?
An anthropologist from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the god of this world is Mammon. (Or, rather, The Market, as depicted by John McMurtry in his book The Cancer Stage of......
daerie (4 comments)
Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts
The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped......
JSanford (13 comments)
Evangelicals Seduced By Ayn Rand Worship Crypto-Satanism, Suggest Scholars
[update: also see my closely related stories, "Crypto-Cultists" and "Cranks": The Video Paul Ryan Hoped Would Go Away, and The Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand/Satanism Connection Made Simple] "I give people Ayn Rand with trappings" -......
Bruce Wilson (10 comments)
Ted Cruz Anointed By Pastor Who Says Jesus Opposed Minimum Wage, and Constitution Based on the Bible
In the video below, from a July 19-20th, 2013 pastor's rally at a Marriott Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Tea Party potentate Ted Cruz is blessed by religious right leader David Barton, who claims......
Bruce Wilson (7 comments)
Galt and God: Ayn Randians and Christian Rightists Expand Ties
Ayn Rand's followers find themselves sharing a lot of common ground with the Christian Right these days. The Tea Party, with its stress on righteous liberty and a robust form of capitalism, has been......
JSanford (10 comments)
Witchhunts in Africa and the U.S.A.
Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe has recently written at least two blog posts about how some African Pentecostal churches are sending missionaries to Europe and the U.S.A. in an attempt to "re-evangelize the......
Diane Vera (6 comments)
Charles Taze Russell and John Hagee
No doubt exists that Texas mega-church Pastor John Hagee would be loathe to be associated with the theology of Pastor C.T. Russell (wrongly credited with founding the Jehovah's Witnesses) but their theological orbits, while......
COinMS (3 comments)
A death among the common people ... imagination.
Or maybe my title would better fit as “Laws, Books, where to find, and the people who trust them.”What a society we've become!The wise ones tell us over and over how the more things......
Arthur Ruger (14 comments)
Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part VI
This is part 6 of a series by guest front pager Mahanoy, originally dated November 15, 2007 which I had to delete and repost for technical reasons. It is referred to in this post,......
Frederick Clarkson (7 comments)
Republican infighting in Mississippi
After a bruising GOP runoff election for U.S. Senator, current MS Senator Thad Cochran has retained his position and will face Travis Childers (Democrat) in the next senate election. The MS GOP is fractured......
COinMS (9 comments)
America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (12 comments)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (8 comments)

More Diaries...




All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.